This is a very clever adaptation. The original film about Quentin Crisp is, of course, Jack Gold’s The Naked Civil Servant (1975). That film presented Britain as almost an inverted fairy tale kingdom. A land of oppressive repression… A land of grimy bed-sits and bitterness… A land in which the aggressively individualistic Quentin Crisp seemed both entirely out of place and yet entirely at home… The film portrayed the Britain of Crisp’s youth as a miserable shit-hole. But a shit-hole that was necessary for the production of an individual such as Crisp.
However, times have since moved on. While GLBT people do not quite enjoy full legal parity and pockets of bigotry still exist, western civilisation has at least managed to move past the point in its development where
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it actively persecutes and brutalises anyone who is different. This means that Crisp’s narrative of flamboyant individualism versus oppressive collectivism was always going to struggle in a more contemporary and liberal setting.
Mercifully, the writer of An Englishman In New York (Brian Fillis, known for his critically acclaimed warts-and-all bio-pics of Fanny Cradock, and the cast of Steptoe And Son) seems to have realised this and turned the narrative of the original film on its head for the purposes of this sequel. This is a film that asks how an individual such as Crisp, a man who has defined himself as an embodiment of the unacceptable, can exist in a society where being gay is suddenly seen as acceptable. The answer is, with great difficulty.
The actions picks up where the first film left off, namely with the screening of the original film. To his surprise, Crisp (John Hurt) finds himself the talk of the town and his fame soon spreads to America where he is invited to stage a one-man-show. Crisp’s arrival in Manhattan is a cinematic joy for those familiar with the original film. Gone are the dreary British sets and dreary British designs, suddenly Crisp finds himself walking through the lower east side in the sunshine, surrounded by flamboyant individuals very much like himself and yet completely different. Crisp’s arrival in New York is less a departure than an arrival home. The New Yorkers of the mid-1970s embrace him.
Of course, Crisp’s sudden fame is due to the fact that social attitudes have changed. As a defiantly ‘out’ gay man, Crisp is seen as an icon and an inspiration for a generation of gay men who are suddenly discovering a whole array of new and long-overdue freedoms. However, Crisp does not completely fit in with this new generation. Attending a gay bar with a straight-acting gay friend, Crisp is saddened to find himself being thrown out for failing to obey the clone-style dress code. “A more fashionable ghetto,” Crisp remarks bitterly.
When the 1980s roll around, Crisp manages to alienate people even more by suggesting that AIDS is some kind of fad dreamt up by hypochondriac queens. This provokes outrage from the gay people who had made him an icon but Crisp refuses to apologise. As a man who has lived his whole life as an outcast, his instinct is to go against the herd, even when he is wrong.
While Crisp’s contrarian nature loses him a number of friends, it also wins him some unexpected ones. In particular, he comes to champion the art of the isolated gay painter Patrick Angus (Jonathan Tucker) and he forges a friendship with performance artist Penny Arcade (Cynthia Nixon) that will last him to the end of his life.
Dramatically, An Englishman In New York is a rather disjointed affair. The section dealing with the 1970s and 1980s has a definite shape to it, and its characters and their relationships evolve nicely over time. However, this period dealt with, the book marches forward to the 1990s and the film ceases to have narrative arcs and comes instead to focus on Crisp’s admittedly wonderful patter. However, while disappointing, there is a sense in which the staginess of this section film is true to the corresponding section of Crisp’s life.
By the 1990s, Crisp had been living as a professional icon for nearly 20 years and his performances with Penny Arcade did boil down to her feeding him set-ups for pre-written witticisms and bon mots. To have this structure follow Crisp from the stage and into his private life does reflect the extent to which Crisp came to exist purely as his public persona. In effect, there may well have been no real person left beneath the makeup and the jauntily angled hat.
Unfortunately, as this is a very short film indeed, neither of these neat ideas are allowed much room to bed in. The second narrative in particular is little more than suggested as the film dutifully marches its way through the details of Crisp’s life. The failure of these narratives to play themselves out properly gives An Englishman In New York a feel of all trees and no wood. The attempt towards the end of the film to pull the various strands together into a story about a man who fell out with the gay community, only to be re-embraced by it, feels artificial, overly traditional and sentimental.
This question of intellectual coherence aside, An Englishman In New York is still a hugely enjoyable piece of drama. Hurt is as wonderful as he was in the original series and he is ably supported by O’Hare and Nixon who actually have very little to work with. The recreations of period settings are also particularly well done with the streets of Manhattan serving as a lovely counterpoint to the London streets of the first film. An Englishman In New York is an intensely likeable and, at times, beautifully written piece of work but what stops me from loving it entirely is its relative lack of ambition. It is all very well to suggest depths to Crisp’s life but to then not explore them properly feels like a real waste. Shame really.